Reading, Writing, and Rehab
IT’S TUESDAY AFTERNOON just before fourth period, and groups of teenagers are smoking cigarettes outside their high school. Standing among them is Billy, who has the smooth cheeks and soft-edged features of a typical 16-year-old. But there’s also a hardness to him. His hazel eyes are impassive. His dark hair is buzzed close to his head, and he has a wispy goatee and his last name tattooed in black script on his forearm.
When Billy was 14, his father, Bill Sr., went to jail on drug-related charges, and the family lost their house and split up. Billy stayed with his mother in a homeless shelter and a series of hotels, each of them trying to hide their drug use from the other. Eventually they stopped pretending and started hustling together to come up with the money for their $200-per-day heroin habit.
At most schools, an adolescent heroin junkie would be a pariah, and probably even be expelled or arrested. But Billy goes to Northshore Recovery High in Beverly, one of three state-funded schools attended exclusively by teenage drug and alcohol addicts. And according to his teachers and principal, he’s been thriving — it’s the first time he’s consistently shown up for school since seventh grade. Having completed a 90-day residential treatment program for his heroin use, he’s now living with his father, who was recently released from jail, and his uncle. (His mother also sought treatment, but eventually relapsed and is now locked up.) He met his girlfriend, Lexi, at the school, and the two of them help each other stay sober. Billy and his father both agree that if he weren’t at Northshore, he wouldn’t be in school at all.
It may sound like trouble — a bunch of teen addicts spending their days together in an alternative school — but Harvard psychologist John Kelly, the associate director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, says a recovery high school can “provide a safe social context,” which helps teenagers resist temptations.
Perhaps that’s so, but resisting temptation can apparently mean different things to different people. Billy may be attending a school specially designed to help him overcome his drug addiction, but he and Lexi openly admit that they regularly smoke pot. In fact, Billy keeps failing the drug tests that are required at the school. After each positive test, he sits down with his principal and the school’s recovery counselor, and they call in his father or uncle for a group discussion on how to help him stay sober. The school’s approach has been to focus on the major concern — heroin — first. Billy says the message he’s been given is “We’re not really worried about you failing for weed. Opiates are the problem right now.”
Most recovery schools across the country require students to commit to sobriety in order to enroll. But Northshore director Michelle Lipinski, who functions essentially as the principal, takes a much different approach. She believes that even if students are using, her school provides them with a safe environment to work through the recovery process. If they’re struggling with drug use, she reasons, better they do so at Northshore than on the streets. “These are the kids who will eventually be the dropouts of our society, not just our schools, if we don’t do something for them,” she says. “Sobriety isn’t how I measure success.”
NORTHSHORE RECOVERY HIGH occupies the ground floor of an old public school in Beverly, and the hallways are filled with the familiar sound of sneakers squeaking on linoleum and lockers slamming. Students curse freely and wander in and out of class without much reprimand. During gym, they are allowed to “take a walk” (i.e., go outside to smoke). At one point during math class, the teacher looks up from drawing sine waves on the board to discover there are only four students at their desks. “Where did everyone go?” he asks.
Photographs by Jonathan Kozowyk